As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa swirled through both Washington and Los Angeles this year, a media darling wherever he went,
I contemplated a core mystery: Can Los Angeles' schools be fixed by a man who loves to be loved, who with his union allies opposed education reform and whose wife is an educator with no presence in the fight for reform?
The surprising answer is maybe -- if his current independent streak holds.
It is typical these days in speeches by the bustling, well-spoken Villaraigosa to hear a quick civics lesson from him about the profound troubles in public schools and the way these troubles harm the viability of Los Angeles.
He asks, "How could we do worse?"
He should know. He dropped out of troubled Roosevelt High School, then eventually persevered to earn a law degree. It wasn't easy. Infamously, he failed the California Bar Exam several times. But before you snicker, remember that a disastrous school system saddled him with enormous academic deficits -- yet he refused to be its victim.
Now, like mayors in Chicago, Detroit, New York and Cleveland, Villaraigosa wants the power to run the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) of 727,000 students, encompassing several cities and two dozen unincorporated communities.
Some are asking why anybody would want to run a district I dubbed, "Los Angeles Mummified" -- a name that resonated for many. The better question is, can the schools be helped by a man who, despite his youthful travails, spent his adulthood on precisely the wrong side of the education wars?
As a state legislator, Villaraigosa joined California's consistently anti-progressive "liberal" legislators to oppose Proposition 227, the ballot measure that ended the disastrous experiment known as "bilingual education."
What if Villaraigosa's views -- that English immersion would hurt students -- had prevailed?
Luckily, clear-eyed California voters ignored the nearly unanimous opposition from politicians. Today, English-language reading and writing skills are improving dramatically among Latino children.
Nor can Villaraigosa take credit for the tough subject matter "content standards" imposed on California's whiny school districts by Sacramento. Those standards were embraced by the State Board of Education under a surprisingly fearless Gov. Gray Davis, despite claims by the Legislature's powerful Latino Caucus -- of which Villaraigosa was a member -- that the standards were just too hard. Under the standards, designed to halt widespread dumbing-down by teachers, California students are clearly improving.
These and other fundamental reforms, fought by teachers unions which are the mayor's longtime allies, are producing a quiet miracle. After two decades of decline that left California near the bottom among the 50 states, public schools are improving.
Today, L.A. Unified is cited by serious reformers as an example of how a troubled urban district can help its teachers turn things around. LAUSD has miles to go. But in many innercity grade schools, where Superintendent Roy Romer has focused tremendous effort, test scores are approaching levels more typical of the suburbs.
That's huge. Low-income, minority students are starting to succeed. This, even though roughly 50 percent of L.A. students arrive speaking Spanish or another language (by comparison, only about 16 percent of students in New York City schools arrive speaking a language other than English.)
This turnaround happened in the wake of years -- even decades -- during which the unions and political groups (with which Villaraigosa was allied) blamed low achievement on insurmountable social ills, particularly poverty, that nobody could fix. The unions fought basic reading reforms, insisting students should work "at their own pace."
They were tragically wrong, and many Los Angeles teens were left functionally illiterate. Today, with reading reforms now firmly in place, children are enjoying big leaps in reading ability, despite the hardships of poverty. Belatedly, some union leaders -- and many teachers -- understand and appreciate the importance of these reading reforms. Other union honchos are merely simmering over their political defeats, all too ready to make new missteps in the mission of teacher job protection or, laughably, in the name of helping students.
If he takes over the schools -- a very big if -- Villaraigosa's biggest challenge will be to come to grips with how wrong he and his friends were. Although Villaraigosa has criticized Romer, the truth is that Romer, the former Democratic governor of Colorado, stood up to his own natural allies. In his former life, Romer was staunchly pro-union as a politician.
Romer's efforts in Los Angeles, along with those of former school board President Caprice Young and no-nonsense current board member Mike Lansing, are among the reasons I rarely call the place L.A. Mummified anymore.
Yet Villaraigosa has taken Romer to task for, among other things, failing to stem the dropout rate. On this count, Villaraigosa's lack of experience in the education wars really shows.
The semi-illiterate dropouts common today were little kids 10 years ago, subjected to endless fads enacted under former school board presidents, such as Jackie Goldberg, and past superintendents, such as Sid Thompson.
Romer tried to undo much of that, by getting teachers to focus heavily on solid, basic skills. In an ironic twist, now-state Assemblywoman Goldberg's name recently surfaced as a possible replacement for Romer when he retires. Goldberg has spent much of her time in Sacramento fighting to weaken reforms in reading, English immersion, math, science, testing and content standards that Romer has championed.
With such struggles still facing the schools, Villaraigosa's own weak history in this field doesn't inspire confidence. What inspires confidence, however, is the manner in which the mayor has proved himself independent of City Hall unions and thus of his past as a labor organizer.
Likewise, he parted company with the powerful Los Angeles Teachers Union in this week's special election, endorsing a different candidate than the union in the Tuesday primary for an open school-board seat.
If a leader with Villaraigosa's energy can learn from his mistakes and maintain the independent quality that has helped make him a media darling, he can be a positive force for improving L.A. schools -- whether he wins the power to call the shots or not.
Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.